Catholic Philippines teaches Islam in state schools

Manila, Philippines - During a 2002 raid at a madrasa in a northern region of the mainly Roman Catholic Philippines, security forces found a cache of assault rifles, crude bombs and training foxholes.

With a Muslim insurgency in the south, and memories of the World Trade Center attacks in New York still fresh, the discovery sent shock waves through the country.

Five years later, officials say the Philippines continues to face threats from Islamic militants, some of whom they say may have been "brainwashed" in local madrasas funded by Muslim organisations from the Middle East.

Now the government and some members of the Muslim community are trying to sideline the influence of militants by offering Islamic education to Muslim youth at state schools and setting a moderate Islamic curriculum for private madrasas to follow.

It's a vital step, say some security officials concerned the growing foreign influence in local madrasas may have a serious security impact on the country, facing active Muslim rebellion for nearly 40 years, including by one group with suspected links with al Qaeda.

"Only eight percent of these madrasas are under the control of the government," Ricardo Blancaflor, defence undersecretary and former director of an anti-terrorism task force, said.

"We don't want our madrasas to become factories for terrorists."

Islam reached the poor Southeast Asian state in the 13th century, about 200 years before Roman Catholicism was introduced by Spain in the late 1500s.

According to the 2006 International Religious Freedom Report of the U.S. State Department, there are an estimated 2,000 Islamic schools or madrasas in the country, more than half within Muslim communities on the southern island of Mindanao.

Only 40 were registered with the education department. About 1,200 are funded by foreign and local donors. Manila has no control over how the money is used.

"They are propagating radical Islam in the guise of freedom of religion," Victor Corpus, a former military intelligence chief who now lectures at an army war college in the United States, told Reuters. "It's like we're being fried in our own fat."

Corpus said nearly 300 madrasas in the country were getting funding from groups in Saudi Arabia that propagate the hardline Wahhabi form of Islam which has inspired al Qaeda leaders.


Some of the students at the madrasa raided in 2002 were among those apprehended for the worst militant attack in the Philippines, the February 2004 bombing of a ferry that killed more than 100 people near Manila Bay.

Mamaros Boransing, a Muslim educator and an undersecretary at the education department, denied that the madrasas were a training ground for terrorists.

"We're challenging that mind-set and we're reforming our own madrasa system to promote a culture of peace and national unity."

Since 2005, the education department has introduced a new curriculum offering Arabic and Islamic studies to state schools in Muslim-dominated areas outside the southern island of Mindanao, home to 3 million Muslims.

Nearly 1,000 privately-run madrasas nationwide funded by the communities or by donations from abroad, have also been required to adapt to the state curriculum for Islamic studies.

In the capital Manila, the government has started test runs for the new madrasa system in 37 state-run primary and secondary schools, where a majority of the pupils are Muslims.

"In the beginning, it was difficult to learn Arabic," Hamid Abdul, a 10-year-old beginner at Geronimo Santiago Elementary School near the presidential palace compl